The Starvationer, Hero of The North

Delve into the curious history of this remarkable boat: a forerunner of the narrowboat, which was designed to navigate subterranean canals in the north of England

The Starvationer


The Starvationer is the strange name for one of the most important boats in the history of canals. These long, slender boats were built to serve the Bridgewater Canal in the 1760s, and their design influenced the dimensions of all future narrow boats. What is thought to be the only surviving Starvationer can now be seen as the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmore Port.

“We believe it is the only surviving one, and it’s certainly the only one in public ownership,” says Zofia Kufeldt, collections assistant at the museum. The museum’s Starvationer was recently selected as one of the artefacts in the History Of The North in 100 Objects project. “We nominated several items and this was chosen because the Bridgewater Canal was instrumental in cutting the cost of coal by half almost overnight, which allowed the Industrial Revolution to take place, transforming cities like Manchester,” explains Kufeldt.

The Bridgewater Canal was the first canal of the industrial age. It was completed in 1761 to bring coal from the Duke Of Bridgewater’s coal mine at Worsley to Manchester. What many people might not realise is that while the surface canal ended at Worsley, channels then extended underground through what eventually amounted to 46 miles of navigable waterway. These subterranean canals provided drainage for the mines but they also gave boats direct access to the coal seams, which made getting coal out the mine much faster and cheaper. Inspiration for the canal came after Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, visited the Canal Du Midi in France and also witnessed the construction of the nearby Sankey Canal. Engineer James Brindley was hired, in part because he had already designed water-carrying tunnels for a colliery in Clifton.

The Starvationer

The subterranean canals of Worsley Delph were serviced by special slender Mine, or M Boats. There were a number of different designs – canal historian Mike Clarke has accounted for at least seven – measuring between 46 and 55 feet long and 4.5 and 6 feet wide. This narrowness allowed them to navigate the tight tunnels of Worsley Delph. The largest boats could carry around 12 tons of coal. Smaller boats may also have been used for maintenance. The boats had to be strong so had prominent internal “ribs” for support – this is what earned them the nickname “Starvationers” as they looked like a starved torso. The boats were modest but they had huge influence. “We believe this was the forerunner of the narrow boat because we think the design of the Starvationer influenced James Brindley and his creation of the locks which serviced the canals,” says Kufeldt.

Although there are few accounts or images, it’s believed the boats could be run in convoys of up to 20, which could be operated by one man – or originally a boy, given the low ceilings of the tunnels. These men would wear special harnesses, which could be hooked to rings projecting from the tunnel walls. The men could lay on their backs on a bench at the end of the boat and move it by walking their feet along the roof of the tunnel as thought on a treadmill. The passage of loaded boats was made easier by the flow of water draining the mines and filling the surface canal.

These underground canals were an engineering marvel, acting as coal mine, transport system and drainage, while also ensuring the surface canal was kept filled with water. As the system extended a second entrance was created and a second level was introduced. Over time, two more levels were dug to serve deeper seams. An underground inclined plane was competed in 1795 to transport boats between levels. This was 453 feet long and raised boats 106 feet. The lower levels were flooded and sealed at the start of the 20th century but Starvationers were still used until the underground canals were completely abandoned in 1969. Now the sole survivor is at Ellesmore Port, where it proudly stands as one of the 100 most important museum objects in the north.

See the Starvationer with your own eyes, along with many other remarkable historic boats, at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

Joe Rampley